Prison conditions in Benin are so deplorable that they were, alongside police brutality, one of two reasons that compelled the international human rights watchdog Amnesty International to list the country in its annual State of the World's Human Rights report for the first time in 2008.
Prisons suffer from overcrowding, cases of unjustified detention, a lack of trained prison staff and lack of adequate food, according to the report.
Amnesty highlights Abomey prison 150km north of Cotonou in central Benin which it says holds up to six times as many prisoners as it was designed to. The prison in the capital, Cotonou, holds 2,445 prisoners in a facility set up to house 400.
A separate research report published in June 2008 by Beninese non-governmental and human rights organisations including Amnesty International Benin (AI) and the Organisation for the Defence of Prisoners' Interests (DDP) also highlighted the poor conditions for the approximately 800 children who are held alongside adults in the country's prisons.
According to AI, "Women and children are particularly vulnerable and live in precarious conditions in prisons. A large number of women are detained with their children and have to give birth without an attendant physician." Youth offenders are not tried in special juvenile courts, flouting international norms.
"Prison overcrowding is a serious human rights problem," said Thierry Alliah, director of human rights at the Beninese ministry of justice. "That is why we will not stop making sure those in power are aware of the gravity of the situation - it could be a fatal blow to our country's image."
According to Alliah the problems stem from the country's dysfunctional justice system. "Trials are not always fair… people awaiting trial are not always judged according to the nature of their crime," he said, and as a result prisoners may be given arbitrarily long sentences. Trials can drag on for years and can suffer interruptions of up to four years at a time, according to Alliah.
Many of the prisoners languish for ten years or more without having a trial, he said. "There are more people awaiting trial than those tried in prisons… they haven't been tried because we don't have enough judges to try them," he said.
"We need to… distinguish the guilty and innocent so we do not keep innocent people in prison," he said.
There is no formal training available for judges in Benin and the few judges who do operate are often on strike demanding higher salaries and cost of living stipends, according to Alliah. And now clerks are following suit.
The government has been aware of the problems for many years but has not prioritised it, according to Olatounde Cambopas, an independent legal adviser.
A bill was passed in 2001 to install 28 civil courts around the country, but no action was ever taken to set them up, and as such "we are still working with the eight courts left over from the previous justice system," which dates back to the French colonial era, he said.
There has been some progress however. In 2007 the Minister of Justice, Legislation and Human Rights conducted a tour of the country's detention centres to ascertain if conditions had improved since first being highlighted by Amnesty International in 2003. According to a December 2007 statement, "the results of the survey… found a significant improvement in conditions over the course of the year."
Meanwhile in 2003 the government introduced a plan to recruit 30 additional magistrates annually, and to build 10 additional prisons by 2010. Alliah is optimistic that these plans will be realised.
"You can't say the government hasn't done anything to address this situation, and hopefully in two years time we will have enough civilian prisons to decongest the current ones, and adequate numbers [of magistrates]," he pointed out.
Amnesty International wants deeper and faster reform. Recruitment of judges must be sped up, judges should accelerate investigation and trial proceedings and should clearly outline fair custody periods, and court sessions should meet more regularly, and youth offenders should be give the benefits of special trials and separate detention quarters it says.
But Campos looks to alternative justice mechanisms to settle the problem, and proposes setting up 'conciliation courts' where victims and offenders can meet to discuss and confront the crime committed thereby reducing the number of prisoners, particularly minors, who are detained.
Whether or not the government will embrace such proposals remains to be seen but advocates are not giving up. "We must maintain permanent pressure on the authorities to change the situation we are in today," NGOs and human rights organisations announced in their report.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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